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Light Rail Now!

As Washington Meanders Toward
"Regime Change"...
Here's Our Wish List for Rational US Public Transport Policies

Light Rail Now Project Team · October 2008

With the USA's national electoral season progressing, and the major presidential campaigns heading toward a final showdown on Nov. 4th, the Light Rail Now Project offers for consideration issues that many transit advocates believe any new administration in Washington should address. These recommendations involve a current overhaul of urban transit-related policies primarily at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA ) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), as well as policies relating to the funding and operations of Amtrak, America's government-supported intercity rail passenger service.

These recommendations almost surely would require any new administration to undertake a total overhaul of policies and management of the FTA and FRA, and to encourage Amtrak's board to embrace policies more supportive of intercity national network rail (long-distance) services.

Transport Electrification

The prospect of changes in administration and policy come in the midst of spreading concern over the confluence of several serious, interrelated crises:

• a period when the global supply of petroleum appears to be peaking ("Peak Oil")...
• growing perception of the threat posed by Global Warming and the effects of carbon (CO2) emissions...
• economic instability, exacerbated particularly by the skyrocketing price of petroleum-based motor fuel.

Attention is increasingly turning to electrified public transport as an effective tool for helping address these critical problems. See: Electrification of Transportation as a Response to Peaking of World Oil Production; A 10% Reduction in America's Oil Use in Ten to Twelve Years.

The potential for electrification in transportation appears to be far more immediate, well-proven, and readily available than some important energy specialists seem to acknowledge. Of all the policy responses suggested for public action, electrification of transportation appears to have the potential for the quickest, the most permanent, and the most profound impact with the best ancillary benefits for human health, land use, pollution, and Global Warming.

Here are specific recommendations for an achievable and effective initial program:

Portland LRT • One very viable alternative is to build much more electrified urban rail – and quickly. Such an approach also can preserve the quality of urban functioning while ensuring adequate mobility. Light rail transit (LRT) – both interurban/semi-metro and streetcar varieties – is a particularly viable approach, because it can be installed more rapidly and at significantly lower cost than other urban rail modes. See: Ready-to-Go Urban Rail Projects as a Medium-Term Response to America's Oil Problems.
[Photo of interurban and streetcar LRT in Portland: Peter Ehrlich]

Seattle ETB • Heavily used city bus lines could also be converted to electric trolley bus operation within a relatively short timeframe.
[Photo of Seattle electric trolleybus: King County Metro]

German RR • Major portions of America's intercity railroad system – freight and passenger – should be electrified. Railroads are 8 times more energy-efficient than heavy trucks. Electric railroads are cheaper to operate and can carry more freight because they accelerate and brake faster (and can generate electricity while braking, saving energy), and have no delays for refueling. Electrifying railroads and transferring half of the ton-miles of trucks to rail should save over 6% of US oil consumption.
[Photo of electrified freight line in Germany: Ian Leech]

Federal Transit Administration (FTA)

• FTA's role as a marketing adjunct of the motor bus industry promoting "bus rapid transit" ("BRT") and other bus-based projects as substitutes for rail should be immediately ended. This is a gross distortion of the planning process; it is outrageously inappropriate for an agency supposedly supportive of impartial decisionmaking on technollogy, mode, and other transit issues, and needs to be stopped. FTA should take a neutral, unbiased role with respect to planning rail, bus, or other transit modes.

• FTA should cease its effort to re-define HOV lanes as "fixed guideway" and to divert transit money into what is essentially highway development.

• FTA should revise its ridership forecasting procedures to allow transit agencies to incorporate the proven higher level of public attraction to rail that has been demonstrated in similar new rail starts (e.g., Denver, Dallas, Charlotte, etc.). In addition, costs and net benefits per passenger-mile (or passenger-km) should become the primary measure used in evaluating cost-effectiveness.

• FTA should acknowledge that rail transit development itself has a uniquely strong influence on land use, attracting development adjacent to stations and thus generating extra ridership. FTA's currently policy of "projecting" land use prior to the overlay of new transit infrastructure should be discarded.

• FTA should allow transit agencies greater flexibility in complying with ADA, rather than mandating the "one size fits all" approach of simultaneous all-doors level boarding only.

• FTA should revise railcar specifications and operating practices to conform with those prevalent in Europe and regulated by the European Union.

• FTA should eliminate its prohibition on streetcar and interurban (or semi-metro) type light rail operations sharing the same tracks and other infrastructure – practices that historically were widespread in the USA during the heydey of electric streetcar and interurban railways, and are commonplace throughout Europe today.

Zwickau Sharing of tracks by both "heavy" interurban trains and smaller streetcars is a common practice in European cities. In this scene from Zwickau, a lighter streetcar (tram) on the right is passing a heavier interurban train on the left. Such track-sharing is basically prohibited by the US FTA, and avoided by American planners and transit agencies over litigational fears.
[Photo: Simon P. Smiler]

• FTA should eliminate the restrictions and requirements it has imposed on Small Starts projects, eliminate the emphasis on "BRT", and permit adequate flexibility in planning to permit workable streetcar projects and a return to the original aims of the Small Starts program.

• FTA should abandon its emphasis on competition for funding among transit agencies, and return to funding needs and projects on the basis of their qualification according to clearly established guidelines. (For more on this issue, and several of the issues raised below, see: With Rail Leading, America's Transit Ridership Soars – But After Years of Underfunding, Agencies Plunge Into Crisis.)

• FTA should abandon its recent policies giving funding preference to transit proposals that include congestion pricing and private-sector financing.

• FTA should abandon its restrictions on the ability of public transportation agencies to offer charter-type and shuttle services for special events and other extra-schedule transit needs.

• FTA should return to its original policy of funding at least 80% of the cost of rail New Starts.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

• FRA should revise rolling stock specifications and operating practices to conform with those prevalent in Europe and regulated by the European Union.

• FRA should abandon its tendency to implement a de facto "outlawing" of light rail technology and operations, and should specifically discard restrictions and revise operating procedures to permit light rail transit rolling stock to share tracks, using adequate signal-protected safety controls, with "heavy" railroad operations. (This has been a major factor complicating light railway and LRT development in urban areas such as Orlando, Raleigh, Denver, and Austin.) In particular, FRA should permit "tram-train" operations by LRT systems similar to those now widespread in Europe. (For more on this issue, see: US Federal Railroad Administration takes light rail.)

Tram & train Track-sharing between "light" transit-type rail services and "heavy" intercity railroad trains is commonplace in Europe, as this photo from the Netherlands illustrates. A Rijn-Gouda LRT line (right), connecting the towns of Alphen and Gouda (near the cities of Amsterdam and Den Haag), is sharing right-of-way with the country's heavy intercity railway system, on which a train (yellow) is passing on the left. Such track sharing is basically prohibited under US Federal Railroad Administration rules, and right-of-way sharing faces strong resistance from major railroad corporations.
[Photo: Kees Pronk]

• Legislation is needed to mandate that "heavy" railroads must allow light railways to share their right-of-way under design criteria conforming to widespread practice in Europe.

• FRA should allow Amtrak and transit agencies greater flexibility in complying with ADA, rather than mandating the "one size fits all" approach of all-doors level boarding only.

Amtrak: Intercity Rail Passenger Network

Sumset Ltd • The US government should adopt a policy of dedicating adequate funding resources for supporting, promoting, improving, and expanding intercity rail passenger services.
[Photo of Amtrak's Sunset Limited near Tucson: Doug Ohlemeier]

• The US government should allocate an infusion of funds for maintaining and upgrading Amtrak's current operations and physical plant, infrastructure, and rolling stock.

• The US government should embrace plans for a major expansion of Amtrak's system, perhaps modelled after the nationwide "grid and gateway" system proposed by the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP).

• A policy of instituting at least daily service for all current trains should be pursued.

• Current efforts to downgrade onboard food service (and sleeping car service) should be ended. Amtrak's program to combine dining cars and Sightseer-Lounge cars into single "Diner Lite" cars should be stopped. Increased funding should be provided to enable Amtrak to acquire more dining cars and Sightseer-Lounge rolling stock.

• Increased funding should be provided to enable Amtrak to upgrade current rolling stock and acquire new rolling stock, both passenger equipment and locomotives.

• The currently proposed new program of providing a federal match of at least 80% to states and localities for improvements to Amtrak and service expansion should be substantially expanded.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2008/10/03

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